A Hamlin could get away with cowardice

As a horse-drawn ambulance and distant stretcher bearers evacuate wounded soldiers from the fighting, Army surgeons and hospital attendants care for wounded Union soldiers in a field hospital set up behind the front lines. Combat artist Winslow Homer sketched this scene for Harper's Weekly. The nephew of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, Dr. Augustus Choate Hamlin worked at a similar 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment field hospital as fighting raged at Manassas on July 21, 1861.

As a horse-drawn ambulance and distant stretcher bearers evacuate wounded soldiers from the fighting, Army surgeons and hospital attendants care for wounded Union soldiers in a field hospital set up behind the front lines. Combat artist Winslow Homer sketched this scene for Harper’s Weekly. The nephew of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, Dr. Augustus Choate Hamlin worked at a similar 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment field hospital as fighting raged at Manassas on July 21, 1861.

If he did not skedaddle from Manassas in late day on Sunday, July 21, 1861, then why did Augustus Choate Hamlin expend so much ink explaining why he was not a coward?

Thanks to his vice-presidential uncle, Hamlin enjoyed a distinguished surname that fateful spring. A doctor by profession and a Republican by choice, he responded enthusiastically when Maine Gov. Israel Washburn asked for volunteers to fight the Confederacy.

On April 18, Hamlin wrote Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon that Bangor “boys are complaining for want of a chance to enlist.” As Hodsdon summoned organized militia companies into service, not all Maine men belonged to such predominantly ill-organized outfits.

“Some capital fellows are all ready to enroll themselves as infantry,” Hamlin informed Hodsdon. “Should you establish a recruiting office here, I would like the appointment of Recruiting Officer and will make use of the Gymnasium [on Columbia Street in Bangor] as [an] office and drill room … I will guarantee that I will have a company drilling” there “on the night after the arrival of the order.”

Hamlin helped raise Co. G, 2nd Maine Infantry, but garnered no commission as a reward. Instead, he received an appointment as assistant surgeon to the regiment, which departed Bangor in a steady rain on Tuesday, May 14.

Dr. Augustus Choate Hamlin was the nephew of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Maine residents never questioned his patriotism; Augustus helped raise a company for the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment and went to war as an assistant surgeon. But he fled approaching Confederate troops after Manassas; because his superior, Dr. William Allen, had not granted permission for Hamlin to abandon the wounded, Hamlin was viewed as a coward back home. He spent much time claiming otherwise — to no avail. (Maine State Archives)

Dr. Augustus Choate Hamlin was the nephew of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Maine residents never questioned his patriotism; Augustus helped raise a company for the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment and went to war as an assistant surgeon. But he fled approaching Confederate troops after Manassas; because his superior, Dr. William Allen, had not granted permission for Hamlin to abandon the wounded, Hamlin was viewed as a coward back home. He spent much time claiming otherwise — to no avail. (Maine State Archives)

The 2nd Maine fought ferociously atop Henry House Hill in early afternoon on July 21. Wounded men — probably including those rescued in a heroic dash led by Col. Charles Jameson — gradually bled east to a field hospital set up just off the Warrenton Turnpike by regimental Surgeon William H. Allen of Orono.

The hospital was likely located east of the Stone Bridge, which an accurate or lucky Confederate shell blocked as a Union victory devolved into a route by 5 p.m.

Shot and shelled off Henry House Hill, Union troops fled east toward Centreville and the distant, yet perceived, safety of the Washington, D.C. defenses. Fear-stricken by the “Black Horse Cavalry!” cries emanating behind them, men walked, ran, limped, or rode as fast as they could to escape the slashing sabers of J.E.B. Stuart and his 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment.

Survivors raced past the 2nd Maine field hospital. Committed to his patients — many 2nd Maine boys had suffered terrible wounds — Dr. Allen hung out a white flag and kept working. Among the men assisting him were Assistant Surgeon Alden Palmer from Orono and 1st Lt. John Skinner of Co. C and Brewer.

Sometime before Confederates arrived, “Dr. Palmer desired to remain at the hospital, but Dr. Allen insisted that he should move on,” Lt. Col. Charles Roberts informed the “Bangor Daily Whig and Courier” in a July 27 letter. Palmer escaped with permission; Skinner voluntarily remained with Allen and his patients.

Already sweating in the terrible Virginia heat and humidity, the nervous Hamlin learned from two passing 2nd Maine lads that the Union army was retreating. He noticed a young black boy holding the reins of the horse belonging to Jameson; the brave colonel was evidently on foot while checking on his wounded men in Allen’s care.

Acting on sudden impulse, Hamlin seized the horse’s reins, vaulted into the saddle, and feverishly fled toward Washington. Not far along the turnpike, two Union soldiers on foot stopped Hamlin and stole his purloined horse.

Confederates did capture Allen, who went to prison in the South and glory in Maine. While local papers noted his bravery, none did so effectively as the “Daily Whig and Courier” in its Wednesday, July 24 edition.

“Dr. Allen of Orono, surgeon of the 2d regiment, was taken prisoner by the rebels while performing the humane duties of his profession on the field of battle,” the paper praised Allen in a three-sentence paragraph.

By that Wednesday, Bangoreans knew to whom the second sentence referred. “The conduct of Dr. Allen stands out in bright contrast with that of a portion of the surgical forces, who mounted their horses and disgracefully fled[,] leaving the wounded and wearied soldiers to the mercies of the enemy,” editor William Wheeler commented.

“All honor to Dr. Allen” (and none to Dr. Hamlin), he concluded.

Union medical personnel and morbidly curious civilians gather to watch a surgeon (center, holding a long medical instrument) amputate a wounded soldier's leg in early July 1863, right after the Battle of Gettysburg. This photograph was taken at an Army field hospital. Surgeons were expected to stay with their patients no matter which way the fortunes of war blew across a battlefield. (Library of Congress)

Union medical personnel and morbidly curious civilians gather to watch a surgeon (center, holding a long medical instrument) amputate a wounded soldier’s leg in early July 1863, right after the Battle of Gettysburg. This photograph was taken at an Army field hospital. Surgeons were expected to stay with their patients no matter which way the fortunes of war blew across a battlefield. (Library of Congress)

Augustus Choate Hamlin reached the Washington defenses early on Monday, well ahead of other 2nd Maine boys (especially the wounded men he had abandoned at Manassas). While Jameson and his surviving officers withdrew the regiment in relatively good order, Hamlin probably thanked God for letting him escape unscathed.

Writing Maine Gov. Israel Washburn from Fort Corcoran on Aug. 2, Hamlin revealed that “a kind friend informed me today that a story is in circulation and related to you, that I fled from the battle…”

In an American culture that always applauded a hero and occasionally white-feathered a coward, Hamlin was 10 days late in answering the “Whig and Courier”-published accusations.

“In reply [to those accusations],” Hamlin claimed “that the most convincing proofs of the complete falsity of the story can be given you by many different persons.” He had “satisfactory evidence” that “the undersigned (Hamlin) was the foremost surgeon in all of the skirmishes and in both [the] battle of Bull Run and when our Reg. was not engaged.”

Without providing names, Hamlin offered to refer Washburn to a “Conneticut (sic) officer,” the 1st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment surgeon, and correspondents from “the Tribune, Boston Journal Illust[rated]. News, and to many others who were in advance.”

Citing again “this rascally lie,” Hamlin stated that he had accompanied the 2nd Maine boys into battle and, while “exposed to [enemy] shot” for two hours, served as the only surgeon “within a half mile.” Sent to the regimental field hospital “to get bandages from Dr Allen,” he “remained with Dr A until the [Confederate] cavalry shot at me and drove me back to Centerville (sic).”

Why “Dr A” did not flee when fired upon by that same cavalry, Hamlin did not explain.

Meandering in ink across northern Virginia for two pages, Hamlin detailed catching a ride to Falls Church with a 2nd Maine hospital attendant driving an ambulance containing five wounded Maine soldiers.

Arriving at Falls Church about 4 a.m., Monday, Dr. Hamlin passed the responsibility for caring for the wounded men to “Mr Edgerly” and “took the Amb[ulance] and rode about four miles and then hobbled into” the capital, “arriving there between six and seven” a.m.

After recovering his medical instruments (and claiming that “the Brigade Quartermaster” had lost “all of our instruments … before the battle commenced”), Hamlin started walking to Falls Church, then learned that the retreating Army of Virginia was reforming at Alexandria.

En route there, Hamlin “unfortunately met Dr [Alonzo] Garcelon,” a talented 48-year-old Lewiston physician and Bates College instructor appointed that spring as Maine’s wartime surgeon general.

In “Second To None,” author James Mundy writes that Garcelon “was both surprised and unhappy to see” Hamlin at Falls Church. “Garcelon minced no words in telling Hamlin what he thought of his rapid departure from the field.”

In his Aug. 2 letter, Hamlin sarcastically stated that “I am indebted” to Garcelon, “as my friends seem to think [him responsible] for this villainous story” about Hamlin’s cowardly flight.

Hamlin later stated that “the same individual” accusing him had also charged “Dr Palmer with cowardice,” a claim that “is completely false.” The 2nd Maine “has some base and contemptible enemies” in Maine or elsewhere, “but it has no such coward as they wish to represent,” Hamlin claimed.

After complaining that he had lost $60 worth of “valuable books on French and English” military surgery, Hamlin closed his letter. In an oddly phrased postscript, he offered Washburn “my salary for benevolent purposes” if anyone could prove that Hamlin had not been the 2nd Maine surgeon nearest the action before or during the Battle of Manassas.

Other 2nd Maine boys had fled as far as Augustus Choate Hamlin did at Manassas, but Allen’s devotion to duty contrasted starkly with Hamlin’s devotion to self. Yet Hamlin was a nephew of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and Maine’s Republican political establishment could not punish Augustus Choate without offending his uncle.

The War Department promoted him to brigade surgeon in 1862. Dr. William Allen left the Army in October 1861.

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 jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.