Requiem for a hero

Charles Tilden went to war as a lieutenant in the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment. By 1865 he was a brevet brigadier general. Captured twice, Tilden was a war hero dedicated to preserving the Union. He died in March 1913. (Maine State Archives)

Charles Tilden went to war as a lieutenant in the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment. By 1865 he was a brevet brigadier general. Captured twice, Tilden was a war hero dedicated to preserving the Union. He died in March 1914. (Maine State Archives)

Tilden is dead.

He whom Confederates could not kill along the railroad at Fredericksburg or at Oak Hill outside Gettysburg, he whom as the 16th Maine Infantry’s “Harry Houdini” never met an escape opportunity that he would not take, he is dead.

Born in Castine on May 7, 1832, Charles W. Tilden died at his Hallowell residence on Thursday, March 12, 1914. Involved in local granite quarrying, he moved to this lower Kennebec Valley town 35 years ago. War veterans cite businessman Tilden as the reason that so many Maine monuments dedicated at Gettysburg contained Hallowell granite.

But Castine has always laid claim to Tilden, who grew up when that Hancock County port really was something else economically. He was 29 when, as a first lieutenant, he went off to war with Co. B, 2nd Maine Infantry. Promoted to captain a month prior to Bull Run, Tilden led his men uphill from the Warrenton Pike that fateful July 21.

There, at the edge of Henry House Hill, Tilden “saw the elephant” as the 2nd Maine boys slugged it out with Confederate infantry. The regiment and its brigade were driven off.

Confederate bullets and cannonballs could not kill him during the Peninsula Campaign as George McClellan shamefully backed away from Richmond and the aggressive Robert E. Lee. Tilden and his 2nd Maine boys watched as Lee hurled his precious infantry at Union cannon maws at Malvern Hill.

And Castine’s indomitable warrior was discharged on June 23, 1862 and sent home to help form the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment. The War Department asked Maine to raise four regiments that summer, which meant recruiting 4,000 men; almost 5,000 men volunteered, and the five newly formed regiments would write their bloody pages in Maine history.

Named the 16th Maine’s lieutenant colonel, Tilden actually commanded the depleted regiment during its field-crossing charge south of Fredericksburg that December. He lost about half of his men, a record he would top amidst the fields and woods north of Oak Hill at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

Captured along with most of his command that afternoon, Tilden went into captivity at Libby Prison in Richmond. When Union prisoners dug an escape tunnel, Tilden crawled through the rat-filled darkness to bolt into the Richmond darkness in February 1864.

He got away then, and he got away when captured outside Petersburg late that summer. His dual captivities and breathtaking escapes would do justice to a full-length movie, but Tilden was never interested in notoriety. He enlisted to fight, and fight he did.

Promoted to colonel in January 1863 and brevet brigadier general by war’s end, Charles Tilden essentially eschewed the limelight. He did not write copious memoirs as did Joshua Chamberlain, another Gettysburg hero who had died only a few weeks earlier.

Tilden’s first wife, Juliet, died in 1872, a few years before Tilden moved to Hallowell. A familiar figure in that town, he fell ill later in life, yet outlived his youngest son, William, by four years.

After his death in March 1914, Civil War hero Charles W. Tilden was buried in his family's plot in Castine Cemetery in Castine. His grave overlooks the Bagaduce River. (Bran Swartz Photo)

After his death in March 1914, Civil War hero Charles W. Tilden was buried in his family’s plot in Castine Cemetery in Castine. His grave overlooks the Bagaduce River. (Bran Swartz Photo)

Now Tilden has finally succumbed to sickness. Confederates could not kill him (not from a lack of trying), and the old hero has died quietly in his bed. His second wife, Emma, and oldest son, Charles Kirk Tilden, will bury him in the Castine Cemetery.

From his hilltop perch, Tilden enjoys a good view across the Bagaduce River to Brooksville. This quiet hero who dedicated his life to his men and the Union deserves the rest.

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

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.